What continues to surprise me is how few people–since that morning in the Mayflower Hotel–have read “A Towering Task” the policy paper written by Wiggins and Josephson. The document was the first draft of defining the Peace Corps; it was in some ways the Holy Grail of the agency. When I asked Warren Wiggins about this, he commented wryly, “It’s marvelous that nobody has read it because, you see, in most ways I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about. In some ways I was dead on, but I did recommend that we ship air-conditioned trailers to the Philippines to house the Volunteers. It’s a far cry from the theology of the Peace Corps that evolved, but then, those were the early days.”
What is clear now from the safety of time and distance is that being anti-establishment, amateurish, anti-professional was the reason for the success of the Peace Corps. This attitude permeated the whole organization and PCVs overseas expressed the same sort of sentiments, especially to the official U.S. government, all those “stuff shirt diplomats.” PCVs were all anti-establishment. That was our charm and also, admittedly, the reason for many of our failings.
Also, and this is important, the Mayflower Gang was driven by values, and those values, as expressed by Wiggins, were central to the ‘idea’ of what it meant to be a Peace Corps Volunteer.
The values were simple: The Volunteers would live the life of the villager, wear the same kind of clothes, eat the same food, live in the same kind of house. In a religious sense, they were taking a vow of poverty. To Americans, in the early ’60s, it appeared that PCVs were living in poverty. “We raised that to an ideal,” said Wiggins.”The vow of poverty was raised to an ideal. And that turned out to be an enormous strength for the Peace Corps.”
The Peace Corps stripped away the cultural and environmental support a Volunteer had grown up with: family, school, peer groups, rewards and success. The PCV was transplanted overseas with poverty as a value. The Volunteer went alone. They went to a strange land, without the supports and material blessings that had accompanied them all of their lives. And that then produced introspective changes.
This new life as a Peace Corps Volunteer made them think about who they were and what they represent and what their ideals were. It produced a self-assessment. Who am I? The materialistic life was missing, and losing the normal supports meant that these Volunteers came back to America knowing a hell of a lot more about themselves. They had to leave a large part of their prior identity behind for two years and concentrate on living a poor life. No one realized it at first, but it changed many Volunteers. It was a benefit that wasn’t obvious at first, though Kennedy had told Harris Wofford he wanted 100,000 a year overseas so that when they came home again they would vote more “intelligently” about foreign aid. That was the value JFK was looking for in the Peace Corps.
When I asked Warren in 1996 how it all happened, how did the Peace Corps really come about, he paused for a moment and then summed up, “We caught the tenor of the times. The Peace Corps epitomized the New Frontier, Kennedy, and the mood of the country following the Eisenhower years. We caught the wind that was blowing across America. And those of us who were there were lucky to be part of that wonderful moment in our history. It couldn’t be done today.”